Survival of Me
Tides and KnivesFive-Tides and Knives
When I’d cried myself out, I became aware of the furry body against one side and the human one on the other. I opened my eyes to the green canopy above and the grass beneath me. I lay against Jason, my head on his chest, his arm around my shoulders. Shooter was curled on my other side. As I stirred, Jason’s eyes opened.
“What happened, my love?” he asked softly. I told him everything, from the revelation of our mothers to my dowry. When I finished, I couldn’t
I sat up and turned to fully face him. I glanced at him and found I couldn’t look away. A tear ran down his cheek, and I saw it follow the track of the ones before it. “Jace…” I half choked, half sobbed. I felt like I was being torn apart. I was so delighted to finally have a proper dowry, but I didn’t know who my mother was. I was still Isabella of Silverwood, but I was not the girl I thought I was. My mother was most likely some tramp my father had found to be attractive. I turned away, gazing into the dappled beams of sunlight. I began to fight myself, forcing the tide of emotions into check. I pushed the anger at the lies and scandal of my life back into the undercurrent and let the high tide carry the joy. I wiped away the tears and brushed my dress off. I looked back and saw Jace smiling. He knew the line of my shoulders when I fought my tides and he knew I was trying to control myself. I stood and reached out.
When Jace grasped my hand, I pulled him up, kissed him quickly and ran. I hiked up my skirt in one hand as Jace followed, laughing. We remembered childhood games of tag and hide-seek. I ran between several ancient sycamore trees and stopped.
Jace caught me, and then looked over my shoulders. I felt him stiffen in shock as I stared, horrified. Below us, the ground dipped away in a slope, forested as usual.
The unusual thing was the bodies. A group of three men in black lay dead before us. I hardly noticed them as I ran to the body of Celesta, a beautiful unicorn mare. Her body was marked by bloody slashes and wounds, and her horn was a dull gray color. I knelt beside her and leaned over, looking and feeling for any sign of breathing. A faint breath tickled my cheek and I scrambled to get the vial of unicorn tears out of my sleeve. I let a drop fall on each of the bloodiest wounds and waited. The wounds I didn’t heal began to heal themselves; another gift of unicorns.
Celesta’s breathing deepened and eased as her horn began to regain its pearly sheen. I replaced my vial and waited for Celesta to wake. When her eyes finally opened, she clambered to her feet. She lowered her head and nuzzled my hair as I reached up and touched her nose. I felt her breath swirl around my hand, weaving between my fingers. “You healed me with my own tears,” her voice sounded in my head. I nodded and showed her the vial. “Where are the ones who hunted me?” she asked.
“There,” I replied, lifting my hand as I sent the thought. Jason leaned over the three bodies, examining them.
“Tell your prince to step back,” she ordered.
“Jace, get away from them,” I called quietly. He looked up, saw Celesta, and backed away. Celesta walked forward, stopping beside a brown lump hidden in the ferns. She trumpeted angrily, causing me to scramble to my feet and hurry over. I knelt beside her with a gasp and lifted the brown lump. It was a pack, fastened tightly on the top, with a rip in the bottom. Pearly horns spilled onto the ground from the rip, glinting in the dappled sunlight.
But four of the horns were wrong. They lay among the pearls like pebbles, gray and dull. The spirals were deeper; more defined, and the tips were fatally sharp. “Those were taken from the body of a dead unicorn, one they killed,” Celesta told me, touching her nose to my back. We had to touch to speak.
“This is why the hunted you? For your horn? Didn’t they see killing you makes them useless?” I asked.
“Not useless. To take a unicorn’s life is a terrible thing. As you know, unicorns are the purest creatures that exist. When one dies, their horn dies with them, and usually disintegrates. To kill one darkens the soul completely. Taking the horn of a dead unicorn turns the horn into the opposite it was in life. A wound caused by one becomes poisoned. A horn must be given freely, or it turns; death is not freely,” Celesta replies.
“They wanted to use them as killing tools,” I realized.
“Most likely. Gather the good ones, Moonbright. Destroy the dark ones,” she ordered.
“How?” I asked, gathering the pearly horns. I picked up the pack again and checked the other pockets. Nothing. Flipping it, I loaded the good horns through the rip and slung it on my back.
“A tear of mine on each,” she replied. I drew the vial again and lined up the four gray horns. I dropped a tear on each and watched. They cracked like stone until they were only dust in my hands. I scattered the dust around the forest floor. “You will give those horns as swords or healing tools to those you think deserve them. Your king, princes, and brothers for certain. Do you remember how to switch them?” she said.
I nodded as Jason approached. Celesta moved a few steps behind me; she was a wild creature after all. “Would she like to come to the palace? She would be safe, as would any others,” Jason offered.
Celesta touched her nose to my back and said, “Tell your prince I will come, but no others will. They have retreated too deep in the forests.”
I repeated this and he nodded. He whistled and Midnight and Shooter appeared on the crest of the hill. “How did you get out here? I don’t see Darkness,” I asked.
“Midnight came back and got me. She refused to let me wait for Darkness to be saddled,” he told me.
As I pictured it, grinning, Celesta offered for me to ride her back to the palace. Turning to her, I curtsied. It was a great honor to ride any kind of rare creature. I swung carefully onto her back as Jason gave Midnight her code-word. He was the only other person who knew it. “You’re carrying a foal!” I exclaimed, feeling the wideness of Celesta’s body. She nodded and followed Midnight and Shooter through the lengthening shadows.
When we reached the palace, people stared at Celesta, open mouthed in awe. While people knew of the unicorns, not many had actually seen one. I guided Celesta to the paddocks, where I could release her with Midnight. Midnight preferred to go in her stall only during poor weather, and I had to remember to tell the hostler to let Celesta in the stall next to Midnight. Both stalls were mine, and remained empty much of the time. As I explained the stall to Celesta, Jason released Midnight and climbed onto the fence. Finally, Celesta trotted after Midnight and I joined Jason. We sat there for a while, just watching. When I finally returned to the castle, I noticed the time.
“Oh, no!” I gasped. I had only five minutes to get ready. On the evening after the Harvest Festival, I joined Lord Finnegan and his wife, Lady Celia, for dinner at the Sweet Blossom eating house in the city. “Tara! Help!” I yelped. She helped me out of the silver and green dress and replaced it with a tunic of silver silk and dark green embroidery. Brown leggings went under it with a pair of soft leather boots to match. Since it was warm, I decided to forgo the cloak. Lord Finnegan and Lady Celia had never minded that I dressed like a boy, so I let Tara tie my hair with a simple green ribbon. I put on the silver necklace inlaid with emerald that was Jason’s Midwinter gift from last year. I slid several blades into place and ran down the hallway to the stairs. The main stairs were in the central parts of the castle; servant stairs were at the corners of the main keep. When I reached the second floor, I found my way blocked by a crowd of chained prisoners being escorted down the stairs. I ran towards the stairs and slid down the stone railing to the floor.
I landed neatly on my feet and looked around. Lord Finnegan and Lady Celia were approaching, smiling. I greeted my god-parents with a peck on the cheek for Lord Finnegan and a hug for Lady Celia. My god-mother was a pretty woman; she was a head smaller than Lord Finnegan’s six feet three inches form, with long red hair and bright green eyes. She was smart and kind, as well as funny and playful. Lord Finnegan was also red haired, but his now had streaks of gray in it, as did his neat beard. He had dancing hazel eyes and a booming laugh. He was also kind and smart, as well as quick witted and funny. They were the kind of people that others liked easily. I loved Lord Finnegan’s smile. It lit up his whole face and made one feel good. I loved them more than I loved my own father.
Lord Finnegan had three children. He had a son named Cathal, who I loved as I did my brothers. He was Taylor’s age; twenty three, red haired and green eyed like his mother. Except for his eyes, he was exactly like his father. He had yet to marry, though I hoped he found someone he deserved. Lord Finnegan also had a daughter, who was Seamus’s twin sister. Shanna was even prettier than her mother, though she was a younger version of her. Shanna had her father’s eyes and gorgeous smile. I considered Shanna a sister.
That was why I did not understand how Seamus was so different. When we were children, Seamus had been the popular one; the one everybody followed. Seamus was red-haired like his parents, but the similarity ended there. While his family was likable and pleasant, he was hard to get along with. He was oblivious, as well as ignorant of how people really felt, and arrogant. He was rude and snippy. When Lord Finnegan proposed I marry him, I laughed. He gave me an understanding smile and told me I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to. I flat out told him I would not marry Seamus right then.
Lady Celia decided it would be good for us to walk, so we did. A group of five guards followed. When we reached the Sweet Blossom, the host led us upstairs to the second floor, where most nobles preferred private rooms. A serving girl brought us roles and water, and then set a tankard of ale in front of Lord Finnegan. Lady Celia took her goblet of spiced wine as I waited for my spiced cider. I didn’t enjoy drinks stronger than coffee, which I didn’t drink often.
I took a roll as Lord Finnegan told me the story of his hunting trip three days previous. I listened happily, thinking ruefully how my father never treated me this way. When the roasted duck came, I was telling Lady Celia of the gowns I had received. The light gold one and the light pink one were from her and Lord Finnegan. I had not eaten at the Sweet Blossom in some time; I had forgotten how good the head cook was. I loved duck, and Lord Finnegan knew it. “Did you eat at all today?” Lady Celia asked as I finished my second helping. I shook my head and took another roll. She shook her head, smiling. I shrugged and stopped. I turned towards the door and stood.
I listened silently; it had gone dangerously quiet downstairs. Lord Finnegan came to stand behind me and opened the door carefully. As a knight, he always had his sword on him, and he drew it now. The guards came in. Two positioned themselves inside the room as the other three lead the way down the stairs. I had a knife in each hand and followed Lord Finnegan silently. The ground floor of the restaurant was made up of booths and tables, and I saw the problem immediately.
Three men had come in with drawn weapons and had forced the host and serving girls away from the door. When Lord Finnegan appeared, the men moved swiftly. The smallest, a lean and wiry man, raised a crossbow and fired. In the small isle, it was difficult for anyone to move quickly, and I knew Lord Finnegan would not dodge this arrow. I leaped from the floor behind him, onto a bench, off the back of a booth and knocked the arrow from the air with the longer of my two blades. I landed in a half-crouch and faced the three men.
They turned and ran. “Oh, no, you don’t,” I snarled, leaping onto an empty table. I leaped across the restaurant, using the backs of the booths as steps. I chased the three men down the street and used my first knife to hobble the slowest. No one could run with a knife in the middle of their calf muscle. I took the second the same way. The last man turned a corner, but I knew this city. I turned down another street and used a pile of wood as my launching block. I ran up it and leaped, drawing the knives from the tops of my forearms. I landed neatly in front of the man, cutting him off. He skidded to a halt and raised the short sword he carried. He brought it down in a wild over handed swing, which I caught on the hilt of my longer knife. I grinned savagely as he strained to lower the sword to my chest, but couldn’t. I brought the other knife up and his eyes widened.
“We got him, Izzy,” a City Guard told me. I flicked my knife and his sword went skittering across the flagstones. I walked back to the Sweet Blossom, where I met Lady Celia and Lord Finnegan. Lady Celia reached out and tucked her hand in my elbow, forcing me to stay close. A City Guard returned my knives and I replaced them silently. We headed back to the palace, walking noticeably faster than we had on the way to the Sweet Blossom.
Jason met us inside the gates. Lady Celia handed me over and smiled at me as Jace propelled me to my room. “What happened?” he demanded, gesturing at the dirt smeared on my clothes.
“Jace, relax. It was an attempted robbery on the Sweet Blossom. I stopped an arrow from hitting Lord Finnegan, put a knife in the calves of two men, and stopped the third from getting away,” I told him calmly, sitting on the couch.
“Why must you always get involved?” he asked, taking my hands.
“Well seeing as they tried to shoot Lord Finnegan and I was right there, I wasn’t going to let them get away,” I replied.
“You say that every time,” he sighed, shaking his head.
“So?” I demanded, indignant.
“I don’t want you to get hurt, Iz,” he murmured, sitting beside me. I shook my head and leaned against him, feeling one arm come around my shoulders. “I introduced Ian to Lady Tonya while you were gone,” he told me. It sounded to me as though he were trying not to laugh.
“What happened?” I asked, turning to face him.
“I think your brother is in love, poor man,” he told me, grinning. I couldn’t help but giggle at his expression and he chuckled. Jace had this infectious laugh, it made everyone else around him laugh, too, and it included his chuckle. Hearing it, I let out a peal of laughter. Jace began to laugh and started tickling me.
“Ah! No, tickling!” I gasped through my laughter.
“Too bad,” Jace teased.
I squirmed away from his fingers and managed to fall off the couch, landing with an, “oomph,” on the floor. Apparently, my expression was quite comical, because Jace started laughing so hard that he held his side. I stuck my tongue out at him, feeling like a little child again. Once I had recovered my breath, I looked up him, trying not to laugh with him. “I’m leaving for Cagney in the morning,” I told him.
“Are you sure you want to?” he asked as he caught his breath.
“I have to. Partly out of a duty to my people and partly out of curiosity. I intend to live there, not at Silverwood,” I replied, pushing myself to my feet. “I even have a new dress in my new colors,” I added.
“Cagney is that light purple color with dark gold, right?” he said, watching me pace in front of the fireplace.
“It’s called lilac, Jace. But yes, those are the colors,” I responded. “I wonder who knew,” I mused.
“Probably only your father. When I paid for the dress I got you, I told them to make it out of any colors they wanted, just not dark pink, since you don’t like pink. I’m guessing that’s what most of the others did,” he told me.
“Oh. Well okay then,” I murmured, heading into my bedchamber to start packing for the trip.